Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The authoritarian personality

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In 1950, a group of four scholars working at UC Berkeley published a massive book titled The Authoritarian Personality. Three of its authors, including the philosopher and polymath Theodor W. Adorno, were Jewish, and the study was expressly designed to shed light on the rise of fascism and Nazism, which it explained in large part as the manifestation of an abnormal personality syndrome magnified by mass communication. The work was immediately controversial, and some of the concerns that have been raised about its methodology—which emphasized individual pathology over social factors—appear to be legitimate. (One of its critics, the psychologist Thomas Pettigrew, conducted a study of American towns in the North and South that cast doubt on whether such traits as racism could truly be seen as mental illnesses: “You almost had to be mentally ill to be tolerant in the South. The authoritarian personality was a good explanation at the individual level, but not at the societal level.”) Yet the book remains hugely compelling, and we seem to be approaching a moment in which its ideas are moving back toward the center of the conversation, with attention from both ends of the political spectrum. Richard Spencer, of all people, wrote his master’s thesis on Adorno and Richard Wagner, while a bizarre conspiracy theory has recently emerged on the right that Adorno was the secret composer and lyricist for the Beatles. More reasonably, the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross wrote shortly after the election:

The combination of economic inequality and pop-cultural frivolity is precisely the scenario Adorno and others had in mind: mass distraction masking elite domination. Two years ago, in an essay on the persistence of the Frankfurt School, I wrote, “If Adorno were to look upon the cultural landscape of the twenty-first century, he might take grim satisfaction in seeing his fondest fears realized.” I spoke too soon. His moment of vindication is arriving now.

And when you leaf today through The Authoritarian Personality, which is available in its entirety online, you’re constantly rocked by flashes of recognition. In the chapter “Politics and Economics in the Interview Material,” before delving into the political beliefs expressed by the study’s participants, Adorno writes:

The evaluation of the political statements contained in our interview material has to be considered in relation to the widespread ignorance and confusion of our subjects in political matters, a phenomenon which might well surpass what even a skeptical observer should have anticipated. If people do not know what they are talking about, the concept of “opinion,” which is basic to any approach to ideology, loses its meaning.

Ignorance and confusion are bad enough, but they become particularly dangerous when combined with the social pressure to have an opinion about everything, which encourages people to fake their way through it. As Adorno observes: “Those who do not know but feel somehow obliged to have political opinions, because of some vague idea about the requirements of democracy, help themselves with scurrilous ways of thinking and sometimes with forthright bluff.” And he describes this bluffing and bluster in terms that should strike us as uncomfortably familiar:

The individual has to cope with problems which he actually does not understand, and he has to develop certain techniques of orientation, however crude and fallacious they may be, which help him to find his way through the dark…On the one hand, they provide the individual with a kind of knowledge, or with substitutes for knowledge, which makes it possible for him to take a stand where it is expected of him, whilst he is actually not equipped to do so. On the other hand, by themselves they alleviate psychologically the feeling of anxiety and uncertainty and provide the individual with the illusion of some kind of intellectual security, of something he can stick to even if he feels, underneath, the inadequacy of his opinions.

So what do we do when we’re expected to have opinions on subjects that we can’t be bothered to actually understand? Adorno argues that we tend to fall back on the complementary strategies of stereotyping and personification. Of the former, he writes:

Rigid dichotomies, such as that between “good and bad,” “we and the others,” “I and the world” date back to our earliest developmental phases…They point back to the “chaotic” nature of reality, and its clash with the omnipotence fantasies of earliest infancy. Our stereotypes are both tools and scars: the “bad man” is the stereotype par excellence…Modern mass communications, molded after industrial production, spread a whole system of stereotypes which, while still being fundamentally “ununderstandable” to the individual, allow him at any moment to appear as being up to date and “knowing all about it.” Thus, stereotyped thinking in political matters is almost inescapable.

Adorno was writing nearly seventy years ago, and the pressure to “know all about” politics—as well as the volume of stereotyped information being fed to consumers—has increased exponentially. But stereotypes, while initially satisfying, exist on the level of abstraction, which leads to the need for personalization as well:

[Personalization is] the tendency to describe objective social and economic processes, political programs, internal and external tensions in terms of some person identified with the case in question rather than taking the trouble to perform the impersonal intellectual operations required by the abstractness of the social processes themselves…To know something about a person helps one to seem “informed” without actually going into the matter: it is easier to talk about names than about issues, while at the same time the names are recognized identification marks for all current topics.

Adorno concludes that “spurious personalization is an ideal behavior pattern for the semi­-erudite, a device somewhere in the middle between complete ignorance and that kind of ‘knowledge’ which is being promoted by mass communication and industrialized culture.” This is a tendency, needless to say, that we find on both the left and the right, and it becomes particularly prevalent in periods of maximum confusion:

The opaqueness of the present political and economic situation for the average person provides an ideal opportunity for retrogression to the infantile level of stereotypy and personalization…Stereotypy helps to organize what appears to the ignorant as chaotic: the less he is able to enter into a really cognitive process, the more stubbornly he clings to certain patterns, belief in which saves him the trouble of really going into the matter.

This seems to describe our predicament uncannily well, and I could keep listing the parallels forever. (Adorno has an entire subchapter titled “No Pity for the Poor.”) Whatever else you might think of his methods, there’s no question that he captures our current situation with frightening clarity: “As less and less actually depends on individual spontaneity in our political and social organization, the more people are likely to cling to the idea that the man is everything and to seek a substitute for their own social impotence in the supposed omnipotence of great personalities.” Most prophetically of all, Adorno draws a distinction between genuine conservatives and “pseudoconservatives,” describing the former as “supporting not only capitalism in its liberal, individualistic form but also those tenets of traditional Americanism which are definitely antirepressive and sincerely democratic, as indicated by an unqualified rejection of antiminority prejudices.” And he adds chillingly: “The pseudoconservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”

Written by nevalalee

August 29, 2017 at 9:01 am

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